April 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Ignes Figini

Two worlds: Woman's SS auxiliary in the Solahuette retreat near Auschwitz with 1944 camp commandant Karl Friedrich Höcker at center. Though Höcker served jail time, he returned to his job as a post office cashier, where he worked until his retirement.
By Alison Fottrell
Published: 2013-01-24

nes Figini was 21 when Nazi officials unexpectedly arrested her in her hometown of Como in March 1944. She had no idea what lay ahead. Neither a Partisan nor Jewish — two reasons for immediate detention — she'd gone about her life normally even after the German occupation began in September 1943. She played volleyball at the nearby Villa d'Este, which also housed convalescing German soldiers. She and many of the city's inhabitants flocked to the local movie house to see films, including Lucchino Visconti's 1943 first feature "Ossessione" ("Obssession"). The same year, Milan's La Scala staged Rossini's Barber of Seville in Como's Teatro Sociale.

But trouble was looming. On March 6, 1944, Figini went to work as usual in the city's largest textile mill, known as the Tintoria Comense, or Ticosa. Once there, she saw fellow workers busily handing out leaflets and sticking some to factory walls. The leaflet, she remembers now, complained that factory workers couldn't be expected to live on an apple and bread roll. It called on workers to protest the German presence in Como through a symbolic morning work stoppage.

At midday, when the young Figini and fellow workers tried leaving for lunch, they found Como's police commissioner and Fascist paramilitary Black Brigade standing in front of the locked gates. In an effort to quell rising resistance in northern Italy, Adolph Hitler himself had ordered the arrest and deportation anyone involved in anti-German strikes. The names of strike leaders were read off and they were immediately detained.

Though Figini barely knew the coworkers on the list, she instinctively spoke out in their defense. "It's not right," she told the authorities. "If you arrest them you arrest all of us. All or none."

Ines Figini at the time of her detention.

Her youthful protest didn't go unnoticed. That night, police pulled her from the home she shared with her parents and sister. Assuring her parents that she'd be returning shortly, she was hauled in for interrogation. Though she knew nothing about the strike and its genesis, she was arrested. A few days later she was moved to Bergamo where her sister Anna managed to visit. As a child, Ines had often strayed from the courtyard outside their home. But her wanderings were tolerated. "I don't have to worry about you, Ines," Figini recalls her mother telling her, "You always come back."

This time 20 months would pass before Ines Figini finally returned to Como, and only after enduring hardship, humiliation, and struggling for survival in two of Nazi Germany's worst concentration camps, Auschwitz — where 1.1 million died — and the women's camp at Ravensbruck, where an estimated 92,000 perished. At 90, Figini's memories are as real as the number 76150 tattooed on her right forearm. She spoke to Alison Fottrell in Como. These are excerpts from their conversation.

What do you remember about your deportation?

The innocence of youth made me think we were being taken to work in Germany and that we would be back in a couple of months. After I saw my sister in Bergamo, we were moved on to Vienna and the following day a train took us to Mauthausen, Austria's mother camp, famous for its torturous cruelty [editor's note: Estimates suggest between 55,000 and 60,00 died in the main Mauththausen camps]. We were stripped of our clothes while soldiers looked on and laughed. It was extremely humiliating. We stayed for about five days probably waiting for other prisoners to arrive before making that famous train journey to Auschwitz.

What about the trip to Auschwitz?

I can still hear the grinding and grating of the carriages loaded with people, their eyes full of fear — it was a terrible sound. The Jewish arrived with suitcases filled with clothes and personal belongings, thinking they were being transferred to a ghetto. Instead it was a concentration camp.

When we arrived it was snowing and we could hardly think from the cold and the fear. As soon we arrived we understood that this wasn't a factory where we could work. It was like arriving in hell. The old, children and disabled were beaten and thrown on the ground... Mothers were separated from babies who had been clinging to their breasts, fathers pulled away from their children. Soldiers took the youngest and oldest, without pity, directly to the gas chambers.

We were then lined up and taken to a large warehouse where a woman who could have been a Kapo tattooed a number on my arm. I tried to rub it off. It was then I realized I was a prisoner like all the rest. I was given a red sock and a yellow sock and a coarse grey and blue striped prison uniform. The soldiers gave orders in German and those who didn't understand were beaten.

The first days in the camp were about survival. I had a spoon, which was to be kept tied to the buttonhole of my uniform so as not to be lost; otherwise there was hell to pay. Some days I was given a coffee like mixture, other days a soup made of water and cabbage or turnips.

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